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It’s Never Too Early For Football
PHILADELPHIA – We are almost to my least favorite time of the year when there is virtually no football. Though the NFL calendar is now packed it seems every month, most teams take a nice break after May and early June’s OTA’s to recharge for late July’s training camps.
The fun part of this time on the NFL calendar is that hope has sprung eternal around the NFL, as every team is 0-0 heading into next season. Yes, even the 0-16 Detroit Lions believe they have positively tweaked their roster and drafted well enough that training camp can’t get here soon enough.
With rosters pretty much set for next season, I thought now was a good time to rank all 32 NFL Teams.
1. Steelers – The 2008 Super Bowl Champions still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch. In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!! The Steelers lost players that they believe already have replacements on their current roster. Plus the Steelers’ weakest area, the offenisve line, will have another year together and the draft yielded Wisconsin OG Kraig Urbik and Penn State C A.Q Shipley. Their defense is getting a little older along their front four, but Defensive MVP James Harrison shoulld be productive after signing a lucartive extension. It will be interesting see if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continues to throw 25 to 30 times a game with RB’s Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) returning. Will compete with the Raven for the AFC North title, but there are issues of complacency and a history of falling back after winning it all (record of 8-8 in ’06 after winning in Super Bowl XL).
2. Giants - The G-Men stumbled down the stretch after WR Plaxico Burress shot himself and the team’s playoff hopes. But look for the Giants to return to contention at the top of the NFC. In the NFC East, the Giants’ main competition will be the Eagles who knocked them out of the playoffs in 2008. Quarterback Eli Manning who is looking for a Matthew Stafford type contract and guaranteed money this year will need to lean on his running game led by RB’s Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Danny Ware. Rookie pass catchers WR Hakim Nicks (North Carolina), TE Travis Beckum (Wisconsin), and WR Ramses Barden (Cal Poly) will try to replace Burress along with returning Super Bowl hero David Tyree (knee). The Giants’ defensive pressure should also get a boost from the additions of Pro Bowl DE Osi Umenyiora (knee), DT Rocky Bernard (FA – Seattle), LB Michael Boley (FA – Falcons), DT Chris Canty (FA – Cowboys) and rookie LB Clint Sintim (UVa) to last season’s menacing DE’s Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck.
3. Patriots – After becoming only the second 11-5 team to not make the playoffs (Denver – 1985), head coach Bill Belichick is on a mission. The Pats return QB Tom Brady from a devastating knee injury and they also made an emphasis of getting younger on defense this offseason. Look for NT Vince Wilfork (playing for a contract), LB Adalius Thomas (finally comfortable in the system), and rookies CB Darius Butler (UConn) and S Patrick Chung (Oregon) to have a huge impact on defense. Offensively the Patriots running game should be better with the addition of veteran RB Fred Taylor (playing the Corey Dillon role) and the return of RB Laurence Maroney (shoulder). Also watch for deep throws from Brady to speedsters Randy Moss, Joey Galloway (FA – Bucs), and Greg Lewis (Draft Day Trade – Eagles).
4. Eagles - After a rollercoast type season where things went a little haywire in Weeks 10-12, the Birds rebounded to make some noise in the playoffs. Any momentum gained from their playoff run was totally enhanced by arguably the NFL’s best offseason. The Eagles obtained veterans CB Ellis Hobbs (Draft Day Trade – Patriots), Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters (Pre-Draft Trade – Bills), and OL Stacy Andrews (FA – Bengals) plus drafted potential offensive differencemakers WR Jermey Maclin (Missouri),RB LeSean McCoy (PITT), and TE Cornelius Ingram (Florida). QB Donovan McNabb (make or break contract season) has to like his team’s chances after the Birds’ front office made over a roster that was getting a little old at key positions. Areas to watch in training camp will be right tackle where Shawn Andrews (back) is moving from his Pro Bowl right guard spot to battle his brother Stacy and free saftey where Quintin Demps and newcomer Sean Jones (FA – Cleveland) will be competing to try and replace future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins (Broncos).
5. Titans – Jeff Fisher’s team was the talk of the NFL after they went undefeated for the first 11 weeks of the 2008 season, but in the playoffs it was a totally different story as the Ravens shutdown the AFC’s No. 1 seed. However with the Titans strong running game (LenDale White and Chris Johnson) and tough defense led by LB Keith Bullock and a talented secondary (S Michael Griffin and CB Cortland Finnegan) expect them back near the top of the AFC South with the Colts and Texans. However there are big question marks around QB Kerry Collins (age), C Kevin Mawae (age/retirement?), their receivers (still looking for a No. 1 guy) and a defense that lost number No. 1 free agent DT Albert Haynesworth (Redskins).
6. Cardinals – The 2008 NFC Champs will not be sneaking up on anyone this season after a playoff run that included an impressive road stomping of the NFC top seeded Panthers. The NFC West is definitely improving with the Niners (playing harder under Singletary) and Seahawks (getting healthier) expected to step-up, so the Cardinals will need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl loser hangover syndrome — 7 of the last 8 Super Bowl losers failed to qualify for the post-season the following year. The Cardinals will again lean on their offense led by a rejuvenated QB Kurt Warner (new contract), rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells (Ohio St), and All-World WR Larry Fitzgerald. It will be interesting to see if the four 2009 defensive draft picks coming in can help a unit that allowed 26.6 points per game. Also what are the Cards going to do to keep DT Darnell Dockett and WR Anquan Boldin happy over their contracts.
7. Panthers – Everything seemed to be falling the Panthers way in ’08 as their “Double Trouble” running back combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and an opportunistic defense led the way into the playoffs. After securing the NFC’s number one seed, the NFC South Champion Panthers imploded at home losing badly to the Cardinals. Panthers Head Coach John Fox (hotseat) will need to get another stellar season from his running backs, but newly re-signed QB Jake Delhomme (arm and 6 turnovers in playoffs loss) is the big key to this team’s success. The Panthers have a stellar offensive line, so look for a continued run heavy offense with about 8 to 10 passes a game going to gamebreaker WR Steve Smith. The Carolina defense will need LB Jon Beason (labrum), DT Damione Lewis (rotator cuff) and rookie DE Everett Brown (FSU) to stay on top of their games in case “franchised” defensive end Julius Peppers (career-high 14.5 sacks) holds out or becomes a distraction. Look for a three-way race between the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons in the NFC South.
8. Vikings – A litany of things finally came together for the Vikes in ’08 as they won the NFC North for the first time since 2004. Right now the Vikings with All-World RB Adrian Peterson and the NFL’s No. 1 Rush Defense are a sexy pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. However there are still too many lingering questions for my taste to move this team higher. Who is the quarterback going to be? (Tarvaris Jackson – inconsistent in the playoffs against the Eagles, Sage Rosenfels – New to their system, or dare I say it…Brett Favre, who brings age and locker room chemistry issues, if he is signed). Brad Childress’ team must also deal with DT’s Kevin and Pat Williams’ facing 4-game suspensions for Water Pills-gate. In the 2009 draft, the Vikings looked to add more offensive firepower to Peterson and emerging WR Bernard Berrian by bringing in WR/KR/RB Percy Harvin (Florida). So whomever the quarterback is in training camp there will be expectations to get the ball in the team’s many playmakers hands. Expect the Vikings and Bears to fight it out for NFC North supremacy again.
9. Colts – Another season, another 12-wins for Indy (NFL Record Six Consecutive). The Colts are a regular season buzzsaw, but once again the playoffs were a different story. QB Peyton Manning’s team lost in OT to the Chargers, but the game seemed little bit more organizational changing. Super Bowl winning head coach Tony Dungy decided that ’08 would be his last season and now first time NFL head coach Jim Caldwell takes over. Caldwell will also have to go into battle without franchise receiver Marvin Harrison (FA), former offensive coordinatorTom Moore (Retirement), and former O-line coach Howard Mudd (Retirement). With so much leadership lost on the coaching staff there is going to be even more pressure on veteran thrower Manning. Expect the Colts to lean more on their running game as RB Joseph Adda is healthy and Indy picked RB Donald Brown in the first round. On defense the Colts are still small and fast, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against larger offenses. Expect the AFC South to be one of the NFL’s best with the Colts, Titans, Jags, and Texans all fighting it out for the top spot.
10. Ravens – Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and upstart head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens were the surprise of the AFC in ’08 going all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Despite the loss of several Ravens (Def Coor. Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard, and others) to Baltimore North (New York Jets) expect QB Joe Flacco and his defensive minded team to still be in the mix. The Ravens defense kept their leader in LB Ray Lewis plus they added CB Domonique Foxworth (Falcons). There should be much more firepower this year on offense as Flacco and RB Ray Rice return for their second seasons fully knowing the playbook and the team also added TE LJ Smith (FA – Eagles), C Matt Birk (FA – Vikings), and OT Michael Oher (Ole Miss – 1st Rd). Expect another black and blue season for the Ravens as they battle their hated rival, the Steelers, for the AFC North title.
11. Bears – Lovie Smith wanted a quarterback to compliment running back Matt Forte and management brought-in QB Jay Cutler in a blockbuster trade. Now Smith needs a playoff run by Cutler as he is on a very hotseat in the Windy City. All I want to know is where are the WR’s that Cutler is throwing to.
12. Saints – Sean Payton’s team was too inconsistent in ’08 (only won two games in a row once), so they will need to equate their talent laden roster into wins this season. Look for an improved running game led by NFL Surprise Player RB Pierre Thomas to help MVP candidate QB Drew Brees and an emphasis on defense of eliminating big plays.
13. Chargers - The Bolts had a nice run in the playoffs to put an inconsistent regular season behind them. But head coach Norv Turner needs a better effort by his running game (LT and Darren Sproles) to assist Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers. The Chargers are hoping a healthly return by LB Shawn Merriman (knee) will pick-up a defense that was sporadic without him.
14. 49ers – Under new head coach “Iron” Mike Singletary, the Niners proved to be one of the NFL’s best teams down the stretch going 5-2 in their last seven games under their former interim head coach. In order to compete with the NFC Champion Cardinals, the Niners must find a passing game to go with Singletary’s new run emphasized offense and attacking defense.
15. Texans – After their second 8-8 season in a row, it is hotseat time for GM Rick Smith, head coach Gary Kubiak, and quarterback Matt Schaub. The Texans must find ways to avoid injuries on offense and add consistency on defense to compete with the Colts, Titans, and Jaguars in the tough AFC South.
16. Dolphins – Last season’s greatest turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5 AFC East Champs will be hard to duplicate for head coach Tony Sparano and GM Bill Parcells. The ‘Phins will be marked team as the Patriots, Jets, and upstart Bills will try to bring them back to Earth.
17. Broncos – Former head coach Mike Shanahan, QB Jay Cutler, and GM Ted Sunquist are all no longer with Denver. A new regime led by young head coach Josh McDaniels and over 17 new players will try to improve a team that lost 3 straight games to finish the season. An improved defense (drafted 4 defensive players) and a hard running game led by rookie Knowshon Moreno should help in the Broncos chase the Chargers for the AFC West crown.
18. Falcons – Besides the Dolphins there was no great turnaround story in the NFL in ’08 than Falcons. Head Coach Mike Smith and Rookie of the Year QB Matt Ryan returned this once downtrodden franchise back into the playoffs. Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, and new TE Tony Gonzalez will need to jell quickly and the Falcons defense will need bigger plays to catch the Panthers..
19. Cowboys – During the ’08 season, one of the NFL’s most talent laden rosters was pulled down again from drama in Big D. The Cowboys will be moving on to their new billion dollar stadium hopefully without the problems created by former distractions (Pacman, T.O, Tank Johnson, and others). But there are some lingering question marks regarding whether head coach Wade Wilson and/or QB Tony Romo can lead the ‘Boys passed the Eagles and Giants in the tough NFC East.
20. Redskins – The ‘Skins in ’08 under first year head coach Jim Zorn were a non-cohesive and inconsistent team due to injuries and internal fighting. But expectations will be a lot higher in 2009 as owner Dan Snyder opened his checkbook for a haul that included DT Albert Hayneswoth and other big ticket items. Zorn and Snyder will need QB Jason Campbell make them forget why the Redskins tried to bring in Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez this passed offseason.
21. Jaguars – After a front office shakeup, all the pressure in ’09 will be squarely on head coach Jack Del Rio. The Jags have some weapons in players like RB Maurice Jones-Drew and CB Rashaun Mathis, but they need more consistency from QB David Garrard and a defense that allowed 367 points in ’08.
22. Jets – With the AFC East title in their sights, the Jets underestimated the Dophins and were left home for the playoffs. With new head coach Rex Ryan coming over from the Ravens along with several former players and staff, look for a new attitude by the J-E-T-S. The keys will be settling a quarterback controversy (Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez) and getting their defense acclimated to Ryan’s attacking scheme.
23. Raiders – After playing the “spoiler” role rather well in Tampa Bay during Week 17 in ’08, the Raiders and their new head coach Tom Cable will be looking for respect in ’09. Cable will need to get more points from offensive weapons QB JaMarcus Russell, RB Darren McFadden, TE Zach Miller and rookie Darius Heyward-Bey (only 27 touchowns in ’08). Plus in order to catch the Broncos and Chargers at the top of the AFC West, Al Davis’ team will need to get better on defense (allowed 388 pts).
24. Buccaneers – Offseason changes were everywhere for the Bucs after an end of season meltdown where they were knocked from the playoffs in WK 17 by the Raiders. New head coach Raheem Morris and a roster full of youngsters will attempt to get right in the NFC South mix, but the division is stacked with the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons near the top.
25. Bills – Get your popcorn ready, because T.O was brought to town this offseason by soon to be Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson. The new look Bills and their new weapon will attempt to climb out of the tough AFC East’s basement. However the Bills may need more than Owens as they finished 0-6 in the stacked division in ’08.
26. Packers – The Pack probably were one of the NFL’s Most Disappointing Teams in ’08, despite some solid play from new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With an emphasis of getting better on defense via the draft (NT BJ Raji), the Packers will need to get pressure to cut down on opponent’s scoring (allowed 380 pts).
27. Seahawks – Even after an injury plagued season and head coach Mike Holgrem leaving the franchise, the Hawks still have a chance in the AFC West. However it may take more than drafting LB Aaron Curry, QB Matt Hasselbeck returning (back) and signing WR T.J Houshmanzadeh to bring the Seahawks back to the top of the NFC West. Hopefully Curry will help lift up a defense that allowed 392 points in ’08.
28. Browns – The Dawgs didn’t have much bite in ’08, so after an organizational shake-up it is Eric Mangini time by the lake. However the coach once dubbed “Man-genius” in NY has his work cutout for him as the Browns have a bad quarterback controversy, a malcontent receiver that wants out in Braylon Edwards, over 15 new players on their roster, a new system, a new GM, and an owner that wants to him now. I guess it will be an Ohio affair at the bottom of the AFC North division.
29. Chiefs – Herman Edwards and Carl Peterson are no longer with this team, but they left behind a mess in KC. New head coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli have their work cutout for them as the Chiefs have been a rudderless ship the last couple of years. Any hope will need to start with a healthy and focused Larry Johnson at running back and new signal caller Matt Cassel hitting the ground running in training camp.
30. Rams – After a season where things were bad under former head coaches Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett, the Rams have turned to former NY Giants defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo. Spags will bring the G-Men way of doing things (running the ball and attacking on defense) to the Midwest. But it may take awhile to find the right players to execute at his former team’s level.
31. Bengals – HBO’s Hard Knocks will be fully entertained from a team that has some talent, but loads of questions marks and dysfunction. Head Coach Marvin Lewis will be counting on recoverd quarterback Carson Palmer (elbow), new name receiver Chad Ochocinco (formerly Johnson), huge first rounder OT Andre Johnson (Alabama) and a host of other “characters” to get him off the hotseat.
32. Lions – Just like the Super Bowl Champion Steelers, the lowly Lions have to start in the same spot they ended the ’08 season in. After an NFL low 0-16 season, there is no place but up for the Lions. New head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew will be counting on over 20 new faces including first overall pick QB Matthew Stafford to turnaround the fortunes of one of the NFL’s worst teams ever.